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Denison native writes historical fiction set in local area
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Denison native writes historical fiction set in local area

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“I wonder what she was thinking about on her way home,” said Ann Hanigan-Kotz of her great-great-grandmother, Caroline Olsen, who drove a wagon with the body of her husband, Christoffer, from Sioux City to Soldier in 1905.

Christoffer was only 50 years old; the Olsens had 11 children.

“She had to bring him home in the buggy, and it took her a couple of days,” Hanigan-Kotz said.

“She had small children, and she had a farm to run.”

Hanigan-Kotz first heard the story from her mother, who has an interest in genealogy.

The story became the basis of Hanigan-Kotz’s first novel, “The Longest Journey.”

Hanigan-Kotz is a 1984 graduate of Denison High School (DHS); she has a 1988 English education degree from the University of Northern Iowa, and a 2001 master’s degree in education from Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

She taught English for 33 years, with 30 of the years at Waukee High School.

Her husband is John Kotz, DHS class of 1980; they live in Adel.

“I was primarily an advanced placement teacher, so I focused very heavily on writing,” Hanigan-Kotz said.

“I taught my kids how to work on better sentence structure, and I taught a lot about grammar and mechanics.”

She read large quantities of her students’ writing, but never found time to do her own writing until she neared retirement.

She and John retired from Waukee High School last spring.

Hanigan-Kotz said the story of her great-great-grandparents reminded her of the 1930 William Faulkner novel, “As I Lay Dying,” which she read in college.

“I’ve always been a big historical fiction fan,” she said.

“So that was kind of the frame of the story – and that’s how I got interested in writing it.”

The book incorporates stories Hanigan-Kotz heard from her mother; some come from her other grandparents’ side of the family.

“When I started the book, I already knew several of the stories I wanted to tell, and then I converted all of them into this one family and I added some stories of my own,” Hanigan-Kotz said.

She spells the characters’ names “Karoline” and “Kristoffer” in the novel (the Norwegian spellings) to give more authenticity to the book.

Her great-great-grandparents used the Americanized spellings of their names.

Some of the details of the novel are adjusted to reflect Hanigan-Kotz’s own experiences.

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“Instead of Sioux City, I used Cedar Falls because I went to school in Cedar Falls, and they have that big ice house,” she said. “So I have him (Kristoffer) packed in ice as she brings him across the state of Iowa. And the ice is melting.”

Her writing process is not one she ever would have told her students to use.

“I would have told them to lay your characters out first, write out your plotline and all the things I had taught when we studied literature and writing,” she said. “I did none of it.”

Some chapters just came out of her head.

“I had no intention of writing them – they just seemed to write themselves,” she said.

The novel takes place in Soldier because that’s where her great-great-grandparents lived; they are buried in the Soldier Lutheran Church Cemetery, which appears on the front cover of the book.

“There’s a page in the back of the book about the name spelling of Olsen,” Hanigan-Kotz said. “The Norwegians today spell it (ending) “son.” My grandfather was adamant that, no, it’s “son” because if it’s “sen” then those are the Danish and we’re certainly not Danish.”

“Olsen” is the correct spelling.

“I have a page of author notes about the spelling of their name,” she said.

She enjoys the process of writing, but the work doesn’t always flow easily; she got stuck on the end of “The Longest Journey.”

“I knew that there was something big that had happened – and I thought I knew what it was when I first started writing – and then I decided that wasn’t going to work,” Hanigan-Kotz said.

The burial of Kristoffer was the end of the story, but she knew a terrible event was still missing.

It took two more weeks - while new ideas would come to her when she was trying to get to sleep.

“Then I’d have to get up in the middle of the night and I have to go and write it because I’ll have forgotten it by morning,” she said.

She finally found the right event to fill out the story.

Hanigan-Kotz said “The Longest Journey” is the first book of a trilogy.

“The second book is about the children of Karoline and Kristoffer, and some of the stories, again, will be real because those people actually existed,” she said. “The third will be on the youngest child. He disappeared; they thought he was dead but he wasn’t. He ran off and left his family behind.”

Hanigan-Kotz likes the writing process, but her attention is divided between writing and her job with Iowa State University; she works with education students. She will work with Drake University student teachers next semester.

“I’ll write for a while and then I’ll stop because I get stuck,” she said. “I come back to it.”

Hanigan-Kotz will be at the Makers Market at the Broadway and Main Mall in Denison on Saturday with copies of “The Longest Journey.”

She hopes Denison residents will be interested in the book.

“I have her (Karoline) twice in Denison,” Hanigan-Kotz said. “I’m hoping that people in Denison will be excited about a book that has Denison in it.”

The Makers Market runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

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